“It’s kind of weird being in New England and trying to do Japanese flavors,” said Tim Maslow, shortly after opening his new restaurant, Whaling in Oklahoma, in Boston’s South End. “From one end of the spectrum, we’re trying to show respect, but on the other end, we’re trying to use what we have available to us locally.”
With that philosophy in mind, Maslow describes Whaling in Oklahoma as an “American restaurant with Japanese sensibilities and flavors.” Together with Matt Hummel — an alum of Maslow’s previous restaurant, the now-defunct Ribelle in Brookline — he’s serving up dishes like a grilled local chicken, marinated in shio koji and served with a bonito flake-packed “funky pepper condiment.” And some of those dishes are quite literally Maslow’s own; he has developed a bit of a pottery-making habit lately.
Maslow and Hummel are joined by another Ribelle alum, Colin Mason, who’s behind the beverage program, but Whaling in Oklahoma is definitely not Ribelle (despite its old neon sign hanging on a back wall at Whaling). “We’re attempting to be very restrained this time around,” said Maslow, “so you’ll see the dishes come with one garnish. There may have been a lot of effort put in, but it looks relatively simple.”
It’s that simplicity that is key: “I’d like to be judged on simple things like pickles,” Maslow said. “I’d like to be judged on rice.” In fact, he has personally made the rice most days since the opening. More often, chefs will keep busy working on new dishes, cutting proteins, and the like, but letting his team take on some of those tasks allows Maslow to “work on some of the building blocks of the restaurant,” he said.
Below, take a closer look at some of the dishes from Whaling in Oklahoma’s opening weeks. Keep in mind that the menu is always evolving; you may not see these exact dishes when you visit, but they provide an overview of some of the things Maslow, Hummel, and the team are trying to achieve.
“My goal was to do the second page of a sushi restaurant menu really well,” said Maslow. “Fry, grill, those are two sensibilities we want to focus on.” There are some raw dishes, too, and if you order from each section of the menu, you’ll end up with a well-balanced selection. “Pickles, a grilled dish, rice, and broth is a really amazing meal; that would be my goal for people who come in,” said Maslow.
Pickle plate: Everything on the pickle plate is prepared differently, said Maslow, who takes care of most of the pickling himself. “Some of it fermented, some of it salt-cured, some of it vinegared, some of it pickled with other pickles.” There’s a turnip marinated with a rhubarb version of umeboshi, for example. (Umeboshi — with “ume” meaning “plum” in Japanese — refers to salted, pickled plums, but at Whaling in Oklahoma, the team makes a similar preparation with rhubarb instead of plums as the plums would be prohibitively expensive. “We wanted to recreate the flavor and texture of umeboshi, and we think we got damn close with a totally different piece of produce,” said Maslow.)
Cabbage, sweet pea miso, lemon: “This one is a proper Japanese bar snack,” said Maslow, “just a really simple thing to get out of the kitchen quickly, get some food on the table.” When the restaurant opened, the dish was served with a sweet pea miso, aged for about four months. On the current menu, it’s a chickpea miso.
Green beans, tofu, nori, aged rice vinegar: “I’m really excited about this romano bean dish,” said Maslow. “I’ve had some mixed reviews on it so far, which is kind of cool — it forces us to either drop it or make it better.” The beans get charred on the grill, and there are two types of tofu in this dish: shira-ae (drained, bashed tofu crumbles) and fried tofu. The whole thing has a salt-and-vinegar flavor. “We have really, really, really nice aged rice vinegar and really, really nice seaweed salt, and we just dress it with a ton of that,” said Maslow. “It’s really refreshing and summery and great.”
Bluefin tuna, rice crackers, dijon, walnut oil: Much like the marinated bluefin you might get at a sushi restaurant, this tuna is marinated in a sweet soy. “Everyone seems to love it,” said Maslow.
Fried chicken, egg, sweet soy, and scallion, over rice: The shio koji-marinated chicken cutlet is breaded and fried to order, simmered in a sweet soy broth, and finished with beaten eggs. As the chicken and eggs souffle together, the sweet soy caramelizes on the bottom of everything. It’s served on rice and topped with togarashi and plenty of scallions.
Grilled local chicken with funky pepper condiment and a side of broth: The chicken comes from Feather Brook Farm in Raynham. It’s shio koji-marinated and grilled, and it’s served with a condiment that gets a “smoky and fatty” flavor thanks to the katsuobushi (bonito flakes) in it, which turns out “sort of meaty when it’s rehydrated,” said Maslow. “It’s kind of an unexpected texture, and it’s very bacon-y in flavor.”
Sweets: The theme of simplicity carries through to dessert. At opening, for example, one of the options was “really good peaches” — that’s how they were described on the menu — served with toasted soy powder and brown sugar syrup. Cantaloupe has made an appearance as well. Outside of seasonal fruits, there’s flan (“really big in Japan,” said Maslow) and a Hokkaido-style cheesecake with a heavy, rich, runny cheese on top. The team has been trying out a variety of cheeses on this one. “We take heavy criticism on this dish,” said Maslow. “It’s polarizing, definitely. We want the perfect cheese. Runny and just a touch funky.”
The best dining approach at Whaling in Oklahoma, in Maslow’s opinion, is to go for the “all you can eat” meal at $80 per person. It’s not actually “all you can eat,” as the menu concedes in the description, but rather a sampling of what the chefs are especially into that day. Maslow shies away from the term “tasting menu” — it’s “really casual,” he said, with food coming out “shotgun-style” (when it’s ready), so don’t expect a formal course-by-course feast. But you’ll end up with about 50% more value ordering this way, he said. “It makes our jobs very easy, and it lets us cook for people in a really neat way. We want you to get a really nice impression of what we do,” whether that means a fish head or an ultra-fancy A5 Wagyu strip loin (or both).
Now that dinner has been going strong for about a month and a half, brunch begins this weekend, October 6 and 7, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to start. It’ll take place every Saturday and Sunday going forward. In the early weeks, keep an eye out for dishes like honey toast with early season pears; biscuits and curry; salt grilled salmon with buttered green onions; fried katsu sandos with maple, butter, and daikon; and, as always, pickles, rice, and broth. A dish dubbed a “garbage plate” might even make its way onto the brunch menu, but the dish’s resemblance (or lack thereof) to its Western New York namesake — from Hummel’s old stomping grounds — is to be determined. Stay tuned.